Hot Air Rising
The Senate opens its debate over climate change.
Barbara Boxer and Jim Inhofe are one of the Senate's oddest couples. She drives a Prius. He drives a Hummer. She thinks climate change is an urgent problem. He thinks global warming is a hoax. She represents a state that went for Obama by 23 percentage points. His was the only state where John McCain won every county.
Yet the California Democrat and the Oklahoma Republican, chairman and former chairman, sit side-by-side on the environment and public works committee, which on Tuesday held its first hearing on climate-change legislation. With an unusually high senatorial turnout and a line of spectators that stretched down the hall—complete with activists dressed in muscle suits, urging senators to "beef up" the bill—Boxer and Inhofe drew their lines in the sand. From a legislative standpoint, the hearing was next to useless. But as a piece of political theater, it might have earned a Tony.
"Today I expect you will hear fierce words of doubt and fear," Boxer said in her opening statement. "This is consistent with a pattern of 'No, we can't; no, we won't.' " Inhofe wanted none of it. "However you spin the debate, whatever schemes you concoct, the public will find out, and when they do, they will reject the schemes, and they will reject the spin," he said, characterizing the House's version of climate legislation as the "largest tax increase in American history."
Boxer turned to face him. "Senator, thank you for your constructive words," she said. She then proceeded to point out that the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill contains no tax increases but in fact includes tax credits.
"In the event that after every statement, you want to review, then we should have the chance to do the same thing," Inhofe grumbled.
"That's fair," Boxer replied sweetly. "I don't mind if you want to review."
"Oh, OK," he said, to titters in the audience, before explaining why he thinks the bill is indeed a tax: Consumers will have higher energy bills as companies pay more for the privilege to pollute.
There was a slight pause. "I stand by my comments," Boxer said, before calling the line of senators to speak.
By now, climate legislation is a worn and dusty battleground. Only last summer, the Senate had a knock-down fight over another climate bill, Lieberman-Warner, which perished during a hot summer in which gas prices hit $4 a gallon. This time, senators are working from the whopper of a bill that Speaker Nancy Pelosi cracked skulls to get through the House with only seven votes to spare.
For now, it's all on Boxer as she leads the effort to neutralize the forces of denial and send a bill to Congress by the end of the month. The first day of hearings featured no fewer than four Cabinet members, who spoke of sequestration, soil tillage, and parts per million. But at this point the issues aren't really at issue. Yesterday was a time for showy opening salvos.
Lydia DePillis is a writer living in New York.